Face in the Glass – Part One
“I guarantee it will scare you out of your…”
“Shoes.” The new waitress interrupted in her lilting, Shalamasi accent. “I presume you were going to say shoes. Recall that I have a knife.”
Briolden, the tavern-keep, grunted and lifted his lantern a little higher. The new girl was small and lithe and had not looked back at him when she had made her casual threat. Such a shame. He knew the uncertain light made the scar on his cheek appear more vivid, more dangerous. It showed he was not afraid of little knives.
He cleared his throat. “Just a little further, now.”
They were deep inside the Crystal Tree Tavern, close to the bole of the tree for which it was named. Peeling paint offered glimpses of the smooth, translucent crystal that formed the bones of the structure. Barrels of ale and wine lined the walls, filling the air with a miasma of hops and vinegar. Most of the rooms down here were for storage and rarely inhabited. Smoke stained the walls above fixed lanterns, but Briolden had not bothered to light them. Shadows scurried around the girl ahead of him, furtive and fearful.
The corridor ended in a door. Briolden gestured for the girl to open it. She pulled on the handle hard, expecting resistance, and jumped back startled when it opened easily and without a squeak.
He was pleased to hear a slight tremor in her voice when she spoke to cover her uncertainty. “You come here often?”
Briolden frowned. She has used one of his lines against him. “We use it to store valuables that belong to our guests.” He patted the hefty lock as he entered the room, then the pocket where he kept the keys. Of course, he had unlocked it earlier, but it could be locked again in a moment if needed.
The room was circular and stacked high with boxes, cases, barrels, bolts of cloth and piles of synth. A shipment from Navarene was nearest the door, neglected by its owner. Some of the crates had been prised open and Briolden glimpsed mysterious metal objects nestled in straw. He reminded himself to scold the labourers for their curiosity.
At the centre of the room was the trunk of the crystal tree, almost ten feet in diameter and unblemished by panels or paint. The girl had drifted close to it, beyond the shifting puddle of light from Briolden’s lantern. She set one palm on the glassy surface and peered into its depths.
“What should I be seeing?”
Briolden walked slowly forward, heightening the tension. “Move your hand a little to the left, and down.”
The girl stroked the surface, and then cried out, flinching. A moment later, she set her hands back on the surface. “It is not smooth. I feel…” She turned toward him. He gave her a simple smile and she returned a complex frown. “I feel a face.”
Briolden lifted the lantern higher.
Light flowed like liquid into the crystal tree. From moment to moment, a hint of a silhouette took on colour and texture, blooming into a complex image that was so unexpected it took a twist of will to comprehend. The waitress gasped.
Within the trunk of the crystal tree, perfectly preserved, was the body of a woman.
“Behold and welcome,” said Briolden, his voice brimming with glee, “to the site of Ellomyr’s oldest unsolved murder.”
Face in the Glass – Part Two
A squeal cut short, snatched Aurora’s attention from the assortment of tools, synth and oddities sorted neatly on the swatch of leather she had set on the ground. “I wish you would stop doing that. We know how it works.”
“That one got almost half way through.” Blundh, the mercenary she had hired to protect her, shrugged. “Can you say you know everything about this beast?”
“It is a plant.” She shook her head, ponytail swaying, before responding to his question. “No, I cannot. But I am working on a solution.” She gestured at the doll-like figure she had been assembling for the last few hours. It resembled a metal skeleton with sinews of wire and organs of mismatched gears, no more than a foot tall.
Blundh drew a small knife from his sleeve and spun it vertically between his fingers, before poking at the wooden cage. The remaining cavot inside squealed. “You think that gadget will be faster than this animal?”
Aurora sighed and leaned back on her haunches. They had found the cave described by the Diruk where the great pile of thorn-tangled blocks known as the Brackenridge collapsed into the plains. Shading her eyes, she could see Ellomyr in a distant, illusory puddle of heat haze. An expedition to the Valley of Sins had passed them earlier in the day and Aurora had considered joining them.
“Safety in numbers,” she murmured again, but Blundh had insisted their deal meant he got half of everything they found.
She leaned back over her makeshift workspace and started fitting the single eye jewel into the automaton’s head. “It is not about speed. It is about fear. Fear has an odour. This plant can smell fear, yours and mine.”
Blundh grinned. “Ah, the odour of fear and the perfume of love. I know these well. I have no fear of this thing. We should burn it out.”
Aurora had learned to be patient with her protector. “We need the catalyst from the poison sacs.”
He thumped his chest. “I am fearless.” She glanced up and saw that his lips were smiling, but his eyes were not.
“I hired you to be afraid on my behalf, Blundh. You do not have to boast at me.”
He chuckled. “Tell me, why do you build these things?”
Aurora set the automaton on its feet and gingerly withdrew her hands. Gears whirred and clicked. The doll wobbled, but remained upright, and its single eye started to glow. “This is a means to an end,” she murmured.
“But you are a wright, no?”
“That is my vocation.” She brushed dust from her pants. “Are you not curious how these miracles came to be?”
He ran his thumb along the edge of his dagger. “Smiths make blades, wrights make…things. It is all the same. If it will make me rich I do not care what skill or magic made it.” He returned his dagger to the sheath in his sleeve. “But you did not answer my question.” In those moments, when he said something that betrayed unexpected insight, Aurora could see the killer in his eyes, shrewd and contemplative.
She gestured at the doll. “These are mere tinker toys. They rarely last. I want to build something big, something useful, something that will last a thousand years. I want to be remembered.”
“You have no children.” It was not a question.
“I have a daughter. Had. She was taken from me.” Aurora quelled the sudden bitterness in her throat. “Um. What about you? Why do you do what you do?”
“What? Kill and wench?” He poked the cage again and smiled at the cavot’s squeal. “I am good enough at the first that I should soon be rich enough to spend the rest of my life enjoying the second.”
Aurora scowled and bent back to her work. A screw tightened here, a wire crimped, a touch of mineral oil. “Alright little Mr Fearless. Show me what you can do.”
The cave was tall and narrow, a fissure that extended back into the Brackenridge as far as Aurora could see. There may have been a hint of light from the far end, but it was diffused by razor-sharp blue crystals jutting from the ground.
On the roof of the cave was a glistening network of tendrils connected to pulsating sacs. The air was humid, heavy with the smell of sulphur and decay.
Unbidden, Blundh released the last of their cavots. It hesitated, turning one way and another, but Blundh hemmed it in with his large hands. Startled, it bounded into cave.
The tendrils shuddered, squeezing out thick, viscous droplets that fell around the fleeing cavot. Snick! Where a crystal was touched by the fluid it rapidly expanded in size and length. The cavot squealed and dodged left and right, trails of blood forming where the crystals grazed it. Snick! The cavot shuddered, and was still, impaled.
The tendrils above shivered, and slender, root-like filaments unfolded, reaching for the dead flesh. Many of the other cavots Blundh had released were already partly mummified by the carnivorous plant.
A fine blue crystal dust mingled with tiny bones and scraps of fur covered the cave floor. Blundh poked the nearest crystal with the tip of his knife. It collapsed into dust.
“Fascinating,” Aurora murmured. “Is it an intentional symbiosis, or did it adapt?”
Blundh gestured with his knife. “How are we to get this magical fluid?”
In response, Aurora spoke in a strange language full of trills, clicks and whistles. The little automaton tilted its head back to gaze up at her and then abruptly marched into the cave.
Aurora held her breath. As expected, the fearless metal doll drew no interest from the carnivorous plant. A beam of red light, dull as embers, swept the cave as the doll navigated the thick clusters of crystal. After a time, it disappeared from view.
Aurora was so focused on her tiny machine, that she did not see Blundh shudder. Turning away, she drew a couple of breaths free of the thick air of the cave.
Blundh did not seem bothered by the smell but his words were suddenly brusque. “Explain, again, why we need this fluid?”
“Well, we could adapt this ecosystem into some form of weapon, I suppose.” Her eyes grew unfocused and she did not notice the intent look on Blundh’s face. Then she shook her head. “If my research is correct we will need it to grow the crystal seed.”
Soon, the embers from the doll’s eyes returned. Aurora smiled. “It looks like my little friend has found us a treasure. You never know how these things are going to adapt when you build them.” The automaton exited the cave and proffered a small, burnished metal clipper, slightly larger than its existing hand.
“Alright my little friend. Let us see what you have seen.” Aurora removed the red jewel and held it up to the sun. As the light flowed through it, an image was protected on the stone, a recording of its journey.
Blundh peered at the imagery and it seemed he was impressed. “I see two, no three of those poison sacs. There does not appear to be an easy way to reach them without getting caught by the crystals.”
“Now he knows where they are, I am certain Mr Fearless can take care of them.”
Blundh waved his hand through the projection. “Wait. What is that?”
The fissure opened at its far end, onto a vista of blue, wispy clouds above a verdant, shifting forest dotted with ruins.
Aurora had unscrewed one of the automaton’s hands, replacing it with the clipper. Gears whirred as the doll adjusted its balance. She glanced up, and then wet her lips with a quick flick of her tongue.
“Well, that makes things easier. It looks like we have found a shortcut to the Valley of Sins.”
Face in the Glass – Part Three
The waitress looked back at Briolden, shaking her head. Her pupils were large, seemingly endless in the light shimmering from the crystal. “Who is she?”
“Nobody knows.” Turning away, Briolden set the lantern on a box. “The tale I hear is the tree appeared one night soon after the Battle of Ellomyr and she was already trapped inside.” Turning back, he watched the waitress as she examined the face in the glass, savouring the emotions that rippled across her face. Fear, revulsion, sorrow.
The woman in the glass was perfectly preserved, down to the slight sunburn on her cheeks and the freckles on her nose. Strands of auburn hair floated loose from her pony tail, like river weed. Her forearms were crossed close to her chest, but she held nothing.
The waitress rubbed her own freckles, thoughtfully as she contemplated the image, the fingers of her other hand flowing along the faint tracery of bumps and ridges on the surface of the crystal.
“She looks surprised. A little sad. Do you think she knew her killer?”
“I come down here often to contemplate what may have happened, but the truth is that nobody really knows it was murder.” Briolden had drifted back to the door. Closing it gently, he set his back against it. “If you look closely you can see her tool belt. I warrant that’s a numenera sticking out. Perhaps she was a wright and one of her experiments got out of hand? We will never know.”
The waitress’s eyes glittered. “Perhaps we will.” Reaching into her apron, she drew out a hollow tetrahedron made from jade. Something glinted at the centre, something that made the eyes water, as if the air was twisted out of shape. She set it on the ground and coruscating light enveloped her in an inverted cone.
Images shimmered in the light: Briolden’s face, big enough to fill the room, every bristle on his unshaven face as long as his arm; an image of a metal arm in one of the open boxes; the waitress’s shoes, surprisingly elegant. The images whirled before finally settled on the face in the glass.
Briolden crossed his arms to contain the sudden tension. “I am always curious about the things a girl keeps in her pockets. What is that?”
The waitress pointed her toe at the device on the floor. “You know, we get tips in more than just shins don’t you?”
He scowled. “Then half of that is mine.”
“This was a gift from my mother.” She reached into her apron pocket and drew out a small, red jewel. “The gadget on the floor is a projector. This…” she held the jewel up to her eye, “…is the real prize.” She set it carefully on the crystal trunk, fixing it in place with clear fluid from a phial.
To Briolden, it seemed as if she had set the gem over one of the dead woman’s eyes. “Those things make me nervous. You never know what they will do.”
“I know what this will do.” She turned to look at him, tilting her head. “I cannot imagine you are afraid. This device will let us look into her eyes and into her memories. We may even be able to see the last few moments of her life.” She turned back and Briolden felt his fingers twitch.
“It is wrong to meddle with the dead,” he muttered, but leaned closer, peering at the swirling lights.
The waitress tapped the jewel.
Face in the Glass – Part Four
Blundh prowled through the copse careful to avoiding the dreambug snares. On reaching each involuntary sleeper, he kneeled down and poured water into their mouths, before quickly checking their gear for valuables.
“I count five villagers, one stranger and three aneen,” he murmured, and a soft cooing rose from the trees above, as the dreambug flock responded. “Just a quarter of the expedition, but almost all of their food.”
Aurora glanced up from her makeshift workbench. Mr Fearless scanned the copse with his jewelled eye, aloof to illusion, infusing the shadows with an umber hue. The dreambugs, their translucent tendrils, and the expedition camp were all clearly visible in Mr Fearless’s projection. In its absence the copse was empty, inviting.
“All we can do is make them comfortable and tell people in Ellomyr where they are,” Aurora responded.
Blundh snorted but moved onto the next sleeper.
The dreambugs resembled living balloons ranging in size from Blundh’s clenched fist, to one as large as the aneen it clasped. Aurora had coined the name after seeing the rapidly moving eyes of their prey. All of the supine forms were dreaming. Their muscles twitched, and occasionally they moaned or cried out, but no amount of shaking, slapping, or cutting would wake them.
“I am almost done, Mr Blundh. We can move on soon.”
The glove Blundh had provided consisted of fine chain links over leather. Using some of the synth from her pack, and iotum Mr Fearless had found on their descent, Aurora had added veins connected to tiny sacs of catalyst from the crystal cave. With a pair of tweezers she set chips of blue crystal into mounts on the knuckles. Occasionally she referred to the plan she was adapting, engraved into her armband.
Assembling the weapon made her queasy but she was almost done. Glancing up at the copse, reminded her of the dangers that made her work necessary. The hide of the dreambugs pulsed in a lazy, roiling kaleidoscope of colours that might be part of their projected camouflage. The expedition had set their camp beneath the dreambug flock, oblivious to the danger above.
Mr Fearless could see through the illusions and once seen through, they faded into smoke.
But she could not escape the wind, and its imagined whispers. Bad daughter. Bad mother. Rebellious. Unseemly. She shivered, and then willed her muscles still.
Gently, she set the last of the crystal shards in place, eyes flicking back and forth as she checked over the makeshift weapon. She felt the urge to spit, but instead she cleared her throat. “It is done, Mr Blundh.”
“So formal?” His smile was boyish. He kneeled beside her, as if preparing to pray. “How does this work?”
“Give me your hand.” His skin was warm and rough. “You must be gentle. Can you see the catalyst sacs? They are controlled by crooking your fingers. They are very sensitive.”
He drew on the glove with elaborate care, flexing his fingers just enough to get a sense for the weapon. Holding it up to the light, he spread his fingers. “They are too small. A weapon is a statement.”
“I assure you, they will be effective.” She handed him a pouch. “I gathered these from the cave. They should last a while.”
Standing, Blundh strolled back to the copse and placed his hand against the hide of the largest dreambug.
“No,” Aurora cried, but it was too late.
Blundh crooked his finger, pumping the catalyst onto the crystal. A shard erupted from his knuckle, forming a razor sharp claw as long again as his hand. The dreambug squealed as it slowly deflated. The aneen it was attached to, kicked out, snorted and died.
A susurrus filled the copse as the flock of dreambugs reacted. Blundh danced away from their snares with childish glee.
“You have a talent for weapons. Why not make more of these instead of chasing dreams?” The crystal claw crumbled to dust as he gestured toward the trail. “We have wasted enough time. The crystal grove is close.”
Aurora rolled up her tools, stood, and then rubbed her hands together. It was a gesture her mother made when worried. “What about them?”
“The sooner we find our prize, the sooner we can send rescue. Agreed?”
Reluctantly, she followed him on the trail that led deeper into the valley.
Blundh stood on tiptoes, reaching for the nearest treetop that was just out of his grasp. Directly above his head was the forest that filled the valley floor. “I can see more of those henges, but no sign of the expedition.”
Aurora kept her eyes narrowly focused on the path in spite of her curiosity. Vertigo clung to her and she could not shake the fog of dizziness. “They are not what we seek.”
Blundh shrugged then drew his eyes back to the beam of light that Mr Fearless was using to sweep their path. The little automaton ticked and whirred, occasionally bending down to gather strange objects from the ground.
Aurora felt a strange thrill watching him fix a new set of grappling toes to his feet. The automaton had learned to mend itself.
The Valley of Sins was a complex ecosystem of flesh and machine. There was no way of knowing, across the strange aeons, if this was a matter of evolution or design, or if there was really any distinction between the two.
Such speculation would get them no closer to their goal. Fortunately, they had found a strange path that took them above the thick undergrowth. It was a stone double helix, horizontal to the ground, with its surface stubbornly independent of gravity. If Aurora found the nerve to look up, at any given moment she might find herself standing sideways, or with the forest high over her head. The path had the texture and appearance of snake scales in emerald and blue. Many of these “cobbles” were missing, permitting small weeds and bushes to grow. An occasional pod-like structure clung to the sides of the path, covered by webs and shadows.
They passed above a glade of mirrors, streams of blood, and trees with human limbs. Blundh tried to point out the Azure Tower, a structure that dominated the centre of the valley wreathed in curious blue smoke ignorant of wind. Aurora kept her eyes carefully on her careworn Navarene boots.
In the early afternoon they arrived at the crystal tree grove. The spiral continued onward toward the nearest cliff, but some geological event had caused it to collapse into rubble. A strange buzzing sound ebbed and flowed around them, drowning out the accusatory whispers.
Finding the nearest spot where the helix touched the ground, they clambered down to the forest floor and followed a pearlescent glow to the grove.
The crystal trees rose almost as high as the nearby cliffs. In structure, they more closely resembled upturned chandeliers. The bole of each tree rose almost forty feet, before sprouting numerous branches. Each branch swept upwards to varying heights, before terminating in flat, circular platforms. Crystal webbing interlaced the branches. The trees would make perfect architectural frames.
Blundh shaded his eyes. “I am not sure even your automaton could drag one of these out of here.”
“The seeds, Mr Blundh. We are looking for the seeds.”
Aurora scanned the trees. She trilled and chattered at Mr Fearless, who raised his eye to the glittering canopy. The tree had leaves that turned slowly to watch the sun. One cluster of leaves beneath the platform on a lower branch appeared more substantial, reflecting the light from Mr Fearless’s eye with brilliant azure beams. “There,” Aurora pointed. “I think those are the closest we will find.”
The wind gusted and the buzzing grew louder before fading again.
Looping a rope over the lowest branch Blundh allowed the further end to fall at Aurora’s feet. He gestured for Aurora to hang on and she looped it reluctantly through her tool web. Hauling on the rope, he lifted her into the canopy.
When she reached the seed cluster, she paused, eyes closed, marveling at the simplicity of the sun on her face. Ever since she had heard the tales of the crystal trees, she had imagined this moment and it did not seem quite real. She wondered if perhaps this was a dream and she had been captured by a dreambug.
Blundh tugged on the rope and waved. No dream could be so irritating.
Cupped in the cluster of crystal leaves, were two opalescent seeds. Using a small chisel, she chipped away at the leaves until the seeds fell free. They were flat ovals like stream polished pebbles the size of her cupped hands. She placed each one gently in her satchel and checked the straps twice.
Shading her eyes, she scanned the tree. There were more seeds, but they were beyond her reach. The crystal was certainly too slippery for Mr Fearless’s mechanical hands but she wondered if she could construct some suckers for him.
Her mind was turning over the design when Blundh tugged on the rope again and shouted. “Hoy. Look west.”
The crystal tree dimmed, as a shadow crossed the sun. The buzzing was suddenly much louder.
A roiling cloud of creatures was descending on the crystal grove in long spirals. Each was almost two meters long, with black wings and wicked beaks. Aurora shivered and almost lost her grip.
Tetrahydra’s were dangerous but rarely traveled in groups larger than three or four. This was a swarm of at least two dozen, and each had a dreambug clinging to its back.
Face in the Glass – Part Five
Colours churned on the waitress’s face, resolving and dissolving, like a rainbow stirred with a stick. She gestured, trying to pluck images from the maelstrom, expanding or discarding them.
Winnowing butterflies, Briolden thought.
Colours swelled into patterns, resolved into glimpses between blinks: Eyelashes the size of his arm; galaxies, then snowflakes, then pollen drifting on the sunset. The perspective constantly shifted and Briolden felt nausea blooming and swallowed. He looked away but the shadows in the room pulsed and shifted, restless in response.
Glancing back he saw a blurred face, shifting rapidly in and out of focus.
A sigh, sharply withdrawn as the waitress tried to grasp the image. It was a newborn, swaddled in purple cloth inlaid with intricate, golden patterns. Then the image was gone, sucked away by the incessant, demanding scurry of lights.
There was no sound, but the images were so vivid that Briolden found his imagination filling the silence. The burr of a wasp, the chuckle of a river, the remorseless pounding of a heartbeat, and a faint shiver of metal sliding across metal. Briolden felt his skin crawl, momentarily convinced the sound had come from within the storage room. He scanned the uneasy shadows but nothing moved.
The waitress was softly speaking. “Memory is not linear. It is not a deck of cards. Impressions fold through feelings, muddled by moments. I have never managed to hold a single image for too long but all we need is a glimpse.”
Keeping an eye on the girl, Briolden reached inside his jacket and flipped efficiently through his keychain. With exaggerated care, he drew out the appropriate key and slipped it into the lock.
A strange hum rose and faded. A lid from one of the open boxes fell abruptly to the floor. Briolden smelled mineral oil and ozone. He scanned the shadows and a peculiar thrill clenched his throat until he realised the figure standing against the wall was just an incomplete metal mannequin. Why had he not noticed it before?
Spooked, he reached into the pouch on his waist, quietly unclipping it and drawing out the glove within. The careworn leather, the chain links and switches, the tiny bulbs and hard nubs, were as familiar and comfortable as the creases in the palm of his hand.
A red, strobing effect scattered bloody droplets across the waitress’s face. It was the sun rising and setting almost too fast to see, days piling on days, endlessly chasing the end of all things. He glimpsed a cave full of blue crystals, sleeping humans in the grip of strange parasites, a spiral path, and crystal trees.
Then, with a lurch that almost made him stagger, a single image resolved on the screen; a face, bald-headed and tattooed, with a scar still fresh and vivid on one cheek.
Briolden reached back and turned the key firmly in the lock.
Face in the Glass – Part Six
Aurora ducked as another tetrahydra plunged through the trees, its beak clicking and snapping. Blundh pumped his fist and a crystal shard shot from his glove, missing the tetrahydra’s head, but impaling the dreambug that rode it. The tetrahydra crashed to the dirt and started thrashing. Blundh pinned it with his boot and shot another crystal through its skull.
Aurora ran. A calm, rational part of her brain marvelled at the glaive’s innovative use of her weapon, even as he turned to fire at a passing shadow. Mr Fearless clung to her arm, actively shielding her, and she clutched the precious satchel to her chest. She was conscious the tetrahydra flock was herding them toward the cliffs and despair sucked at her feet, but Blundh kept her moving.
They had been so close. She had the seeds. She had the catalyst tucked carefully into her belt pouch. The cliffs loomed above and she thought, “no way out, no way out”.
She cried out. A tetrahydra dropped in front of her, its mouth tentacles flailing. Blundh pushed her roughly aside and she slammed into a tree Roaring, the glaive punched his fist into the creature’s beak, pumping out crystals, until its face was covered in bloody froth. Then he stood, and swayed, and grinned.
Aurora rubbed her forehead and her fingers came away covered in blood, but it was nothing compared to the five inch gash on Blundh’s cheek.
“You are hurt,” she said, surprised at her shrillness.
Blundh laughed. “Scars are good for a warrior. Scars tell our tales.” He scowled suddenly, gesturing at the edge of the tree line, and the looming cliff. “We must find shelter, a defensive position. We stand no chance in the open and I see no way up those cliffs.”
Aurora clutched the seed satchel to her chest, nodding, nodding. The abrupt wave of relief she felt dropped her to her knees. “I can do it. I can get us out of here.” She grinned wolfishly, enjoying Blundh’s looked of puzzlement. “Do you think you can hold them off long enough for us to get to the edge of the cliff?”
Blundh nodded. “For a minute or two. What are you planning?”
“Mr Blundh, I believe I have a clever idea.
She proffered her hand and allowed him to pull her to her feet.
More tetrahyrdas had joined the flock than they had killed. Two of them dived as soon as she and Blundh broke from the trees. Aurora raised her arm instinctively as one swooped down and Mr Fearless raked it with his new, grappling claws. The creature cried out, in a breathy, mournful rasp, and crashed into nearby boulders. Blundh shot the other down on its second pass.
On reaching the cliff face, she drew a seed from her satchel, pulled the waterskin filled with catalyst from her pouch and weighed one in each hand. She kicked Blundh’s shin to get his attention. “I am not sure how quick this will be. Quick enough I hope. If you could make some loops of rope?”
The glaive watched her face, without responding, for long seconds. Then he fired off a quick volley of shards at the wheeling flock and drew the last of their rope from his back. “I am ready.”
Kneeling, Aurora set the crystal seed into the earth. She trilled some instructions at Mr Fearless, then stood back and lifted the shard. “This should work.”
“You do not sound convinced.” Blundh grunted. The tetrahydras had worked out how to land on the sheer cliffs above and were wing-walking down toward them. “Why do you wait?”
She reached out, trembling, and poured droplets of the catalyst onto the seed.
And laughed against bubbling hysteria as nothing happened. Blundh swiped at a tetrahydra with the rope, knocking if off the cliff, and nothing happened. Six of the beasts emerged from the forest, beaks clicking and drooling, and nothing happened. Aurora felt her consciousness slipping, her vision narrowing, and yet nothing happened.
Then it all seemed to happen in a moment.
Tiny crystal filaments formed on the surface of the seed, hissing as they probed the sunlight and shattered it. The filaments grew quickly, like questing, curious fingers, at first engulfing and encapsulating leaves and stones like insects in amber. Then the hissing grew to a roar and dirt erupted as the crystal tree rose rapidly from the ground pushing aside everything in its path.
Blundh threw a loop of rope over an emerging branch, another around her waist, and then gripped Aurora with all his strength. In moments her feet had left the ground and she felt a heavy sensation in her stomach as they were hurled upwards. A crackling filled the air, as loud as an avalanche, and the tetrahydra flock wheeled away, scattering.
Aurora was terrified, exhausted, and perhaps the terror had cured her vertigo as she took a moment to admire the view unfolding around her. Her gaze followed the helix path fading into the distance toward the distant henges and the cliff where they had found the secret path. She struggled to remain conscious. Shadows crossed her face as the boughs of the crystal tree unfolded, asymmetrically, constrained by the cliff. She felt Blundh grab her belt and hurl her up onto a platform that was growing rapidly, like a spinning plate. Then all she could see was the layer of mist that hid the valley from view.
The lights of Ellomyr glowed in the distance, like embers floating over water. Every muscle in Aurora’s body hummed with fatigue, and her skin was a tapestry of cuts and bruises. Yet she hummed happily, a lullaby she had once sung to her infant daughter, before they had taken her away. Blundh had remained stolidly silent since they had scrambled over the edge of the cliff. Perhaps brooding was the way he dealt with pain and the memory of fear? It did not matter to Aurora. She dealt with pain and fear by planning, by building, and the seed was all she needed to get started.
Finally, Blundh spoke from the darkness, his voice oddly flat. “I am curious. Why did the crystal tree not shatter like the shards in the cave?”
“It is made from different stuff, Mr Blundh. The catalyst is not what makes the blue shards brittle.”
“Ah. Good.” His hand closed on her upper arm and he swung her around to face him. “Then we need to talk about my fee.”
Aurora shook her head, puzzled. “Now? Surely you want some light, some food, perhaps an ale?”
“Now.” He gestured at her satchel. “Half of the treasure is mine. The last seed is mine.”
Aurora tried to pull away but he was too strong. “No. This whole trip was about getting the seed. If you want everything else you can have it. But I need the seed.”
His eyes were dark. Blood tricked from his roughly stitched wound. He nodded and released her suddenly, so that she staggered backwards.
A chill rippled through her skin and she started backing away. He was speaking softly, turning his gloved hand over to look at his palm. “Nobody knows that we both emerged from the valley alive.”
Aurora took a breath. She started clicking and trilling.
He laughed. “Your little metal doll will not save you.”
“Faori,” she shouted, and Mr Fearless jumped from her shoulder, and scurried into the night.
Blundh fired off a few shards, but the dull thuds suggested he struck only dirt.
Then he levelled the glove at her face. “The seed.”
Aurora drew it slowly out of her satchel. “Here it is.” She clutched it to her chest and plucked the catalyst from her belt, pressing the waterskin against the seed. “Come and get it if you think you are so clever.”
Rage suffused him, and muscles in his jaw twitched. Aurora watched him struggle to control his anger. He shuddered, and then smiled. “I will settle for half of clever,” he whispered.
Then he lunged toward her.
Face in the Glass – Part Seven
As the lights faded, the waitress spoke in a whisper. “When did you know?”
Briolden finished pulling the glove tight, careful not to stress the catalyst sacs. “Does it matter?” He chuckled. “If it makes you feel any better, I was not certain until just a few minutes ago.”
She swivelled slowly on her heels, turning to face him. The resemblance was uncanny. Briolden felt foolish for not noticing earlier. Not that it mattered.
“My name is Faori Folly. My mother was Aurora Adherani.” The waitress, Faori, was trembling but with rage not fear. “And the important question for you is ‘when did she know’?”
Briolden leaped toward her, fist clenching to pump the catalyst sacs. Razor sharp blue crystals erupted from the gloves like claws.
And smashed on the cone of light surrounding Faori, breaking half the bones in his hand. Briolden rebounded, staggered and crashed back into the crates along the wall.
Faori tapped the air. “The light is projected on a force field.” Her gaze flicked passed him. “Now.”
Strong, mechanical arms closed around Briolden’s torso from behind. A voice, soft as reeds in a breeze, spoke in his ear.
“I am exerting 3237 units of force on your ribs. Your struggles may add sufficient force for your ribs to crack. But please, do continue to struggle.”
Briolden ceased struggling.
Faori leaned down and plucked the force projector from the floor. The lights dissolved. “Thank you, Mr Fearless.”
“As always, Lady Folly, it is my pleasure so serve.”
Aurora tilted her head, one way and another considering. “You may wish to let up a little, Mr Fearless. I believe he wants to breathe.”
Briolden gasped. “Is it vengeance you seek? It is too late to save her.”
“You know, you never did ask me my name. I suppose the other girls you brought down here did not matter much to you either.” Her voice was suffused with melancholy. “It’s not as if I truly knew my mother.” She stepped closer, and then sat on the edge of a crate contemplating the man. “It is not vengeance I seek, Briolden Blundh. It is justice.”
Briolden spat at her. A moment later agony lanced through him as his ribs crackled.
Faori’s voice remained even. “You do not have to answer my questions, of course.
“You have no proof that I killed her.”
“No.” She waved her hands. “All of this was a light show to keep you distracted while Mr Fearless reassembled himself.” She leaned closer and her breath was sour from sorrow. “The only thing you will see in the eyes of a dead woman is your reflection.”
He grinned. “Then release me or kill me. Are you a killer Faori Folly?”
“Have you already forgotten, Mr Blundh? Mr Fearless records everything he sees.”
“Upon occasion, I simulate circumstances where I forget. Alas, they are mere thought devices to distract the mind from the crushing mundanity of the world.”
Aurora glanced down at the hands she had clasped together in her lap. “Still, I am curious about one thing.”
Breathing shallow, to diminish the pain, Briolden spoke softly. “I will answer your question if you answer one of mine. How did you track me down?”
She caught his gaze and smiled. “Certainly you have noticed how big Mr Fearless is now. It took a long time for him to find me. He made a few modifications to himself on the way.”
The reeds whispered again. “I am delighted that you find my present form so pleasing, Lady Folly.”
Briolden chuckled, a ratcheting sound. “She wanted to build something to last. A legacy. And here are the two of you.”
“So it may be. Now answer me. Why did you stay? Why build the tavern? Was it from guilt or to gloat?”
Briolden found it too painful to shrug. “A foolish waste of a question. She has all my treasures. She was my treasure. I could not leave her behind.”
Faori stood, stretched. “Folly is only my family name, Mr Blundh. Now, Mr Fearless, let me recover your third eye and then we will show the council what it has seen.”
The Face in the Glass – Epilogue
Like the crystal tree, the city of Ellomyr had grown organically, along and across the Great Red River, around the Brackenridge and the mysterious, endless Valley of Sins, and down into the mighty gorge where the river vanished far below the ground. The Crystal Tree Tavern sat among a series of interlinked pools, flowing into each other, occasionally in defiance of gravity. The pools formed part of Ellomyr’s fresh water filtering system and were filled with fish and lilies. Weirs and aqueducts spread from the pools out across the city like an aqueous web.
Faori sat on the edge of one of the pools, one knee hooked in her hands. A pair of labourers had just removed the tavern’s original sign. The tavern itself was a three-storey cylindrical structure constructed around the bole of the tree. Numerous outbuildings at various levels were connected by ladders and bridges. A sky ship was docked to one of the higher branches, catching the light of the setting sun.
As Faori raised her gaze, she could see many crystal trees dotted about the city.
Even when Mr Fearless was completely still, Faori could hear the tick of metal as it heated and cooled, the hum of gears and the flow of fluids. He stood beside her, mechanical hands behind his back. After reassembling himself from the crates in the storeroom, he had been naked for a while, his mechanical innards exposed. Now he wore a long black trench coat, a black and white striped scarf, and a bowler hat. That was proper.
She had heard the people of Ellomyr were more accepting of automatons and hoped that was true.
His third eye, the red seeing jewel, glowed richly in response to the light of setting sun. “It seems that certain legal matters have been resolved to favourably address your impecunious status. In brief, it would appear that you are now the proud owner of a tavern.”
Faori had never determined if his elaborate speech patterns were innate to the voice box he had found on his journey, or merely affected. She tilted her head to look up at him. “We, Mr Fearless. We own a tavern. In any case, I am not sure that we are cut out to be tavern-keeps.”
“It is certain we would offer substantially less risk to serving staff than the prior claimant to the title.”
Faori chuckled, but seemed a little sad. “It turns out that we are rather good at this investigating lark.”
“Indeed. Though travelling through all the Steadfast and half the Beyond to discover the fate of your mother is not something that, with any level of brevity imaginable, I would merely describe as a ‘lark’.”
Faori pushed herself to her feet. The labourers were lifting a new sign into place. She quirked her lips into a grin that Mr Fearless knew meant mischief. “Perhaps we should stay. What do you think? ‘Folly and Fearless, Private Detectives’?”
Mr Fearless shook his head with great deliberation. “While I am loath to perpetuate a jest that assuredly arose parallel with self-awareness itself, nonetheless I do believe that ‘Fearless and Folly’ has greater resonance.”
“It sounds good to me.” She patted his sleeve. “I am famished. Shall we eat?”
They strolled away from the crystal tree, arm in arm.
Behind them, as the sun set, the labourers finished their work, placing the new sign. The paint was still wet and the letters glittered with metallic motes.
It simply read “Aurora’s Arms.”